Voluntary code on green claims given a year to succeed

Businesses have been given one year to comply with a new voluntary code on environmental claims or face legislation to make it mandatory. But the Government has yet to spell out how it intends to monitor compliance with the code.

The previous Government dithered and ducked for several years over how green claims should be controlled, if at all. First it promised legislation; then it dropped the idea; then it sponsored a study which recommended a statutory code of practice; and finally it promised to have a voluntary code ready by the end of 1996. Proposals for a voluntary code were eventually issued last February (ENDS Report 265, pp 27-28 ), and it is these which the new Government has now built upon.

Environmental claims have been included in a broad review of consumer protection legislation being carried out by the Department of Trade and Industry. In the meantime, Environment Minister Michael Meacher has given companies a year to demonstrate that the voluntary code can work, while maintaining that his "ultimate goal is legislation".

The Government is hoping that improvements will be achieved as major retailers put pressure on suppliers to abide by the code, which has been endorsed by the British Retail Consortium, the Confederation of British Industry and the Local Authority Coordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards.

The code covers any claim, either in written form or a symbol, about the environmental nature of products appearing on a product or its packaging at the point of sale. It is closely modelled on a draft international standard on environmental labelling, ISO 14021, which may be approved later this year.

According to the code, an environmental claim should be "legal, decent, honest and truthful", and should be:

  • Clear, accurate, and capable of being supported by scientific evidence which can be independently verified.

    Relevant to that particular product - saying that tropical hardwood has not been used to make paper is likely to be irrelevant.

  • Clear about what aspect of the product or packaging the claim refers to. An unqualified claim that a product is "recycled", for example, would not be justified if only the packaging or a small part of the product was made from recycled material. Claims about recycled content should say how much recycled material is used and whether it is production or post-consumer waste.

  • Significant in terms of the overall impact of the product during its life cycle. The Government is preparing guidance to help companies conduct life-cycle assessments.

  • Open about any "significant" doubt or division of scientific opinion over the issue on which the claim is based.

  • Explicit about the meaning of any symbol unless it is required by law, backed by standards, or already recognised by the public. Where a claim involves "a reassuring image or logo produced by the company making the claim, there should be a clear statement of just what that symbol means."

    A claim should not:

  • Use vague or ambiguous phrases, such as "environmentally safe", "green" or "non-polluting".

  • Mislead by concentrating on something which is true in itself, while avoiding other information which is just as significant, or more so, in terms of the product's overall impact.

  • Be put in absolute terms without any qualification. For example, it would be wrong to say "this product causes no harm to the environment" as all products have some impact, or to claim that a product is "sustainable".

  • Imply more than it actually covers if the claim is really about only limited aspects of a product or its manufacture. For example, it would be misleading to claim that paper has been made with a "chlorine-free" bleaching process if the process, while free of elemental chlorine, still used chlorine dioxide.

  • Make comparisons which are not clear and specific. It would be wrong to say that a product is "now even better for the environment" without further explanation.

  • Imply that a product or service is exceptional if the claim is based on standard practice.

    The Government says it is still exploring options for promoting best practice, monitoring compliance and ensuring consistent application of the code. The picture could become clearer in March, when an official review of the UK Ecolabelling Board is due for completion. The review has been broadened to address how the Board or a possible successor might promote and oversee the code (ENDS Report 276, p 27 ).

    The National Consumers' Council (NCC) is conducting a survey of green claims and will repeat it next year to measure the progress made and highlight examples of good and bad practice. It wants the code to be given statutory backing.

    Speaking at the launch, NCC Director Ruth Evans said that she had no doubt that the situation has not improved in the past two years, with "lots of bad environmental claims around." As a starting point, she called for a commitment from all Government Departments to demand that their suppliers adhere to the code or face delisting.

    Friends of the Earth called on the Government to force companies to provide information on the life-cycle impact of their products, and to provide such information for all goods, and not just the few niche "green products".

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